News release: MDH, local communities team up to study Minnesota children’s chemical exposures

News Release
Feb. 9, 2022

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MDH, local communities team up to study Minnesota children’s chemical exposures

Project identified ways kids may come in contact with chemicals, ways to reduce exposures

An innovative partnership between the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and community partners in Minneapolis and Greater Minnesota has produced useful new information about Minnesota children’s exposure to chemicals in their environments. The project found that chemical exposure is a potential concern for children around the state, but the details of the concern vary by location, racial/ethnic group, household practices and other factors.

The Healthy Rural and Urban Kids Project measured 21 chemicals in the urine of 232 children from two communities: neighborhoods in North Minneapolis and three counties in north-central Minnesota. Both areas have long had concerns about potential exposures to chemicals in their environments and the project was developed to respond to those concerns.

The chemicals chosen for the project are ones that can be measured in urine and that can tell scientists something about potential exposure to air pollution, metals, and pesticides. As part of their Early Childhood Screening visits, children whose families consented were enrolled in the project. MDH partnered with Minneapolis Public Schools and the local public health agencies of Becker, Todd, and Wadena counties to offer participation to families in multiple languages.

This was Minnesota’s first biomonitoring project focused on preschool-age children. Public health officials hope the project results will help inform new strategies to protect children from exposure to environmental chemicals that may impact their health, explained Jessica Nelson, director of MDH’s biomonitoring program.

“Children’s developing bodies are especially vulnerable to chemicals in our environment and these results are helping us learn about potential ways Minnesota kids may be coming in contact with certain chemicals,” Nelson said. “Having a better understanding of this gives us a solid foundation for developing new approaches to limit harmful exposures.”

The project found that chemical exposures differed across rural and urban areas and among different groups.

  • Children from the urban area had higher urine levels of air pollution chemicals compared to kids from the rural areas and the U.S. average in children. These chemicals are part of a large class of chemicals made during combustion called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs.
  • Children from the rural areas had higher urine levels of one pesticide compared to urban children (but not higher than the U.S. average in children). This pesticide, called 2,4-D, is an herbicide used on some agricultural crops and for lawn treatment.
  • Children who ate rice frequently had higher urine arsenic levels than those who did not eat rice frequently.
  • Children from the urban area whose family recently used a pesticide in the home had higher urine levels of a pesticide chemical than children whose family did not use a home pesticide. Finding this pesticide chemical indicates exposure to synthetic pyrethroids - insecticides associated with home pesticide sprays, bug bombs, mosquito sprays, and some farming practices.

For more detailed findings, see the Healthy Rural and Urban Kids Community Report on the MDH website.

The project results point to equity issues that are important to address, Nelson said, such as the finding that some Asian American children in the project had higher urine arsenic levels than other groups. The urine arsenic level among children is associated with rice consumption.

“Rice is a healthy food that many families eat, and food is an important part of cultural identity,” said Nelson. “We need to do more to be sure that all families have access to safe choices for foods they value.” The report provides information on which types of rice have less arsenic and how to reduce the arsenic levels in rice.

The report and its accompanying information sheets (translated into Hmong, Somali, and Spanish) offer ways families can reduce exposures to the other chemicals as well.  

MDH’s experience with the project allowed it to get new funding through a grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to expand the work into a statewide program. Healthy Kids Minnesota will expand the work to all areas of the state over the next five years and will include more children and types of chemicals. St. Paul and Northeast Minnesota will be the next areas to be included in the project starting this year.


Media inquiries:

Scott Smith 
MDH Communications